Friends, Research, and Misunderstandings

One of the things about being a public anthropologist, a professional actively engaged in public issues, is that people will at times misunderstand what I have said (usually by mistake, but occasionally deliberately). Normally that is okay. But some things are potentially damaging and hurtful.

Many years ago I was at a research workshop on fisheries and the organizers had representatives to speak from all sectors but First Nations. That’s a long story in and of itself, suffice to say I was annoyed. I wrote a position paper on the spot and latter revised it to a full length paper.

In that paper I mentioned the fact that anthropological fieldwork is based upon friend-like relations. I went on to comment that many anthropologists go on to form life long friendships with the people we have lived with and written about. But that wasn’t the focus of the paper and I went on to pick up the main themes leaving behind my reflections on friendship. But it is this thread that has been misunderstood and misrepresented.  

I have continued to tell students in my teaching that anthropology is based on friend-like relations. AND because of this one needs to be especially careful about ethical considerations. When anthropologists (students or professionals) come from privileged wealthy backgrounds and have been accustomed to getting their own way they may well misunderstand and take advantage of how people they have come to visit might respond to them. The student, especially, arrives into a situation that is temporary and ephemeral. They are in part more cultural tourist than ally (though most take on the role of ally).

I also talk about the importance of performatively marking out when one is being a researcher. I suspect this is a complicated idea. I mean, how can I mark off that moment when I am Charles the researcher from Charlie the cousin and friend? Ultimately they are the same person. My point is that given the friend-like relationship upon which anthropology is based one must be very clear about when one is actively collecting information – one needs to mark off these boundaries clearly and obviously. There are many areas wherein one can slip up. My good friend and colleague Caroline Butler and I have recently written a paper about this very issue using our personal research histories and our personal identities to understand and explain it.

I often caution students that they should not take advantage of their privilege and the friend-like relationships that lie at the base of anthropological research. In places where I am a member, like my home nation of Gitxaala, I am especially concerned about students who may prey upon the good nature of others. So much so that I no longer organize so-called field schools, but instead arrange research internships that are directly under Gitxaala’s control. This setup leaves no ambiguity in anyone’s mind as to who is in control (Gitxaala Nation), who owns the data (Gitxaala Nation) and who decides what can be published and when (Gitxaala Nation).

Despite one’s good intentions one can not control how others hear oneself. It saddens the heart to learn that someone may have misunderstood the idea of friend-like relations so grievously incorrectly as to think they were being told they couldn’t make friends. I feel even worse to think that someone may have understood that the idea of friend-like relations was being advocated to trick others into revealing deep rooted secrets in order to build a professional career. Such characterizations are misunderstandings of an analogy used to explain something.  “Friend-like relationships” are none of those things.

Anthropological research is built upon friend-like relationships. This is our strength and our weakness. We make friends because we care about the people we get to know over the years, if not decades of close association. When we are also insider researchers, like I am, it is even more the case since we are writing not only about our friends, but also about our families. This is a special responsibility that as an insider anthropologist we take on. We care about family, friends, and home in a way that no outsider, however well intentioned can do.

I grew up on the north coast of BC and have been privileged to continue to work along the coast in my home, with friends and families. It is a pleasure to write about my experiences and to reflect upon what I have learned through nearly six decades of life. Any sadness that accumulates along the way is cleansed in the certainty that I have a place to call home and that I know who my grandfathers are. It roots me to a deep history and a powerful future.


A Fathers’ Day Reading List

Some years ago I came across an unexpected book by ecological anthropologist Ben Orlove, In my Father’s Study. It is a book that has stayed with me. It’s a story of a son coming to learn about his father, to come to an adult appreciation of him, after the father’s death.  It’s a touching memoire.  I’ve used it a few times in my teaching but my 20/30-something students respond to it rather differently than I. For them it is simply one more book on a reading list while for me it led me to think about my life as a father and as a son.

I’ve spent a great many hours with my own father. As a child following him around as he worked on his fishing boat. As a young adult working with him on the same boat. And later in life visiting with him, keeping each other company sometimes talking about the past, often about his health, and occasionally about my own work. Coming across Orlove’s book, almost by accident, has led me to gather over the decades an eclectic little library of books reflecting upon fathers and sons. Here, in my own sense of order, is a selection of my favourites.

  • In My Father’s Study. Ben Orlove. U.Iowa Press. 1995
  • A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father. Roy MacGregor. Viking, 1999. A loving tale of a northern Ontario father by one of Canada’s favourite journalists.
  • Waterline: of fathers, sons, and boats. Joe Soucheray. David R.  Godin, Publisher. 1996(1989). A memoire about restoring a boat, but its far more than that.
  • For Joshua. Richard Wagamese. Anchor Canada. 2003(2002).
  • Broken Cord. Michael Dorris. Harper. 1992.
  • To See Every Bird on Earth: a father, a son, a lifelong obsession. Dan Koeppel. Plume. 2006.
  • Lost in America. Sherwin Nuland. Vintage. 2004.
  • Patrimony. Phillip Roth. Touchstone. 2001.

There are more – but this is more than enough for a start.